A Brief History of the Irish Snug
Though Irish pubs have been exported around the world, one very traditional Irish drinking concept is harder to find in modern pubs: the snug. Prior to the 1960s, Ireland’s drinking establishments were almost exclusively the domain of men, and no respectable woman could or would be seen drinking inside. It wasn’t a law, but it was the reigning social convention, and many bars wouldn’t let women in. But that doesn’t mean that Irish women never drank. They just did it in a slightly less conspicuous way: inside a small, screened-off room attached to the bar called the snug.
In general, Irish women largely drank at home, dispatching someone else (often, their sons) to bring back a jug of porter. Some even sat outside pubs waiting for their menfolk to come back out. But inside many Irish pubs of the 19th and early 20th century, there would be a snug where women—and anyone else who didn’t want to be seen having a nip—could enjoy their pints privately. The snugs—"confession boxes we’d call them," a pub regular recalls in Kevin C. Kearns’s Dublin Pub Life and Lore—An Oral History of Dublin’s Traditional Irish Pubs—would have a small window for bartenders to pass drinks through, so no one could see the patron order. They also had locks so that they couldn’t be opened from the outside, giving whoever was inside almost total privacy.
Fans of the BBC’s Peaky Blinders might be familiar with the concept—the Shelby gang holds meetings in the Garrison Pub's snug, where they can wheel and deal out of public view. They were, however, one of the few public places that women could have a drink. In many bars, it was more expensive to buy a drink inside a snug, but for some, the privacy was worth it.
When the Irish police force, the Garda Síochána, was founded in 1922, a large portion of officers were teetotalers. "More than half the officers belonged to the Pioneers of the Sacred Heart, a total temperance organization," as Irish journalist Cian Molloy writes in his 2003 history The Story of the Irish Pub. "Such was the emphasis placed on sobriety among Ireland’s new police force after independence that from 1926 onwards, disciplinary action could be taken against any officer who 'while on or off duty, shows the result of consuming intoxicating liquor, the slightest departure from strict sobriety.'" The Garda might be able to sneak into a snug, though.
During the War of Irish Independence in Ireland, the Black and Tans (the UK police force fighting the Irish Republican Army) couldn’t be served in Dublin’s pubs. As one Dubliner recalled to Kearns in his oral history, "the pubs wouldn’t serve them in their uniform … they might be able to slip into a snug privately, dressed as if they were going to the theater or all that."
Men of the cloth, too, often frequented snugs. In Dublin Pub Life and Lore, Dubliner John Preston remembers that Father "Flash" Kavanagh, a local priest, was so fond of his drink that he’d rush through mass to get to the pub when it opened: "You’d see him in there with his red vestments and he’d go in right through the bar to a little back snug there … that was his berth."
However, not all snug activities were so rebellious. "The snug also played another social role," Molloy writes. "It was the place where the matchmaker was found. The matchmaker was usually a trusted old man who would discretely arrange marriages between the sons and daughters of local farmers and shop keepers."
Up until the 1960s and 1970s, women were largely not seen drinking in a public tavern. Even women who owned bars weren’t keen on having a female presence there. Mary Hyland, a bar owner in the Irish village of Ballacolla who died in 1996, didn’t approve of women drinking in her pub even when it became more commonplace. Her nephew, who took over the bar when Mary was in her 80s, says she wouldn’t serve women at all until her later years. "A few years before her death [at 83], when two women walked in and ordered pints, her reaction was 'What is the world coming to?'" he told Molloy.
But over time, as it became more socially acceptable for women to head to the bar for a pint, snugs began to disappear. Bars modernized by adding classier lounges where people of both sexes could acceptably order drinks. During the course of those pub renovations, many snugs disappeared. In an email to mental_floss, Molloy theorizes that "snugs started to disappear because they took up quite a bit of room—they were attached to the end of a bar, with only those in the snug having access to that end of the counter. Ged rid of the snug and more people can get to the bar."
You can still find snugs in some historic bars, though. Belfast’s Crown Bar, a historic landmark that opened in the early 19th century, has multiple. As does Ryan’s of Parkgate Street, a Dublin pub dating back to 1886. And there are several pubs across the world named The Snug, though not all of them actually have private snugs. On the bright side, women don’t have to worry about being seen drinking in public anymore, so few of us need a snug, anyway.